Incriminating English

Randolph Quirk

  • Language, Self and Society: A Social History of Language edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter
    Polity, 358 pp, £45.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 7456 0765 9
  • Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language by Richard Bailey
    Cambridge, 329 pp, £16.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 521 41572 1
  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language edited by Tom McArthur and Feri McArthur
    Oxford, 1184 pp, £25.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 214183 X
  • The History of the English Language: A Source Book by David Burnley
    Longman, 373 pp, £25.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 582 02522 2
  • The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. I: Beginnings to 1066 edited by Richard Hogg and Norman Blake
    Cambridge, 609 pp, £60.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 521 26474 X

Among various worries I have about the degree subject English, the most serious is the decline (to near vanishing point in many universities) of historical language study. One accepts, of course, that there is an awful lot else to claim the attention of teachers and taught; that the literature of the past two hundred years alone is more than enough challenge for the three short years of undergraduate life. One accepts, too, that things were not helped by a tradition in teaching the history of the language that was more than a little offputting, even for those who would spurn any passing passions for ‘relevance’. Preoccupation with Germanic comparative philology some times failed even to get the starred forms of proto-English across the North Sea before the course ended. Even the faster and less doggedly traditional teachers were liable to get bogged down in the phonology of Middle English dialects and the mysteries of ‘ash one’ and ‘ash two’.

Yet the history of a language is an indispensable guide to the cultural history of its speakers. And with English we are lucky in having an exceptionally rich and lengthy record through which we can make this cultural history accessible in the total web of European civilisation. My concern over the decline in teaching the subject is increased by awareness that once a tradition of study dies, resuscitation is extremely difficult. As Chaucer puts it,

  yf that olde bokes were aweye
Yloren were of remembraunce the keye,

and already the learning assembled in Luick (to name just one ‘old book’) is beyond the reach of most who study English.

So it was with some reassurance that I noted in recent months the publication of several new books which deal in depth with English linguistic history. For example, the collection of papers edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter, Language, Self and Society. This, you’d think (I thought), is just what is needed to excite a fresh interest in the history of English. Well, I thought wrong. The volume is too miscellaneous in topic and treatment to fulfil the claims of its subtitle, and the more valuable essays are devalued in an ambience of sloppily expressed ideology. Among the ill-motivated leitmotifs is a whinge about professional historians for their neglect both of language and of the racially, religiously and sexually oppressed: the neglect, perhaps, of what Hugh Ormsby-Lennon refers to in the book as ‘a social solidarity semantic’.

The broad concentration upon a generally-neglected period of language history (the 17th and 18th centuries) is wholly welcome, as is the attention paid to lexicology and semantics. But even at their best, the authors sadly make us doubt their scholarly credentials. Jo Gladstone’s interesting study of John Ray quotes a passage that she attributes to Bishop Wilkins when it is, in fact, from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, and elsewhere she says that Thomas Blount ‘first used the title term “hard words’ ” when, in fact, it appears in the title of the really rather famous book by Cawdrey published 14 years before Blount was born. Patrick Joyce conceals some valuable material on dialect behind a smokescreen of class prejudice and rather poor writing; a not untypical example: ‘around the mid-19th century when dialect emerged’. Daniel Rosenberg on Home Tooke makes interesting connections back to Locke and forward to de Man but neglects Bentham. Roy Porter on the language of sickness in Georgian England could usefully have been longer and G.S. Rousseau on late 18th-century nerves could just as usefully have been a lot shorter. Nigel Smith is fascinating on ‘The uses of Hebrew in the English Revolution’ and Peter Burke’s little sketch of post-Medieval uses of Latin is wide-ranging and excellent. Other chapters suffer from being wide-ranging and bad. Victor Kiernan’s ‘Languages and Conquerors’ should have stuck to the subcontinent which he knows well instead of skipping round the world and across three millennia.

It may be this diachronic range that makes Arabia ‘half empty’ on page 194 but endure ‘overcrowding’ by page 200. And as if to widen still further the range of conquest and imperialism, Kiernan takes women on board as having ‘a good claim to be classed as colonisées’. The model for such free and easy historiography was already established in Roy Porter’s Introduction to the book: not so much a broad brush as an aerosol spray cartoon of the intellectual scenery around us. But the ‘Social History of Language’ is too serious to be travestied with questions like ‘Will computers ever develop chatty vernaculars of their own?’ or with hackneyed and misleading metaphors like ‘the language of clothes’.

So I turn to Richard Bailey’s Images of English: exhilarating material drawn from the less gleaned acres of language history. On the controversies over post-Renaissance style, we have not only Gil, Bullokar and Puttenham but Camden, Carew and Verstegan. On the 19th-century problems of ‘English Transplanted’ around the world, we have not only Noah Webster, Jakob Grimm and Macaulay’s over-quoted Minute but Alphonse de Candolle, P.M. Cunningham, W.E. Gladstone and Ma hatma Gandhi.

But although much of the material is fresh and refreshing, the thinking behind its selection is stuck in an all too familiar groove: English is characterised as permeated with class prejudice, racialist contempt, chauvinist venom and imperialist swagger. Without actually identifying himself with such recent extremism, Bailey gives remarkable prominence to an ‘image of English as a male-dominated and consequently a flawed mode of expression’. At the very least, it should have been stressed that such views tend to proceed only from people knowing no other language. Justifiably irritated by the triumphalism in much writing on English ‘as a world language’, and desperate to demonstrate his politically correct credentials, Bailey insists on predominantly negative images which sadly lead him into sociolinguistic commonplaces of the late 20th century. He thus distorts some of what would be of undoubted educational and scholarly value in his researches into four vitally important centuries.

In fact, Bailey and Burke-Porter alike offer thirsty readers a heady mixture that could be disastrous on an empty stomach. Both books should be broached only by those well fed on sound historical data served up as hygienically as the easily polluted subject of language will allow. One place to seek such fare is the admirable Oxford Companion to the English Language, which, though far from mainly concerned with the history of English, provides an excellent summary accompanied by references to something like a hundred and fifty special articles elsewhere in the book, dealing with such topics as etymology, semantic change and loan translation, all of them written by experts. We can be grateful to the McArthurs for thus placing key aspects of language history firmly and clearly in the wider context of English linguistic and literary culture.

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